40 Amazing Words That Begin With 'A'

iStock/JLGutierrez
iStock/JLGutierrez

Turn an uppercase A on its side so that its closed top is pointing to the left, and you might be able to see where the letter itself originated. Its earliest ancestor was probably an Egyptian hieroglyph representing an ox’s head, and the ox’s two horns are what gave our letter A what are now its two pointed legs. The Phoenicians then took on this Egyptian ox symbol and simplified it enormously (into their vaguely triangular letter aleph, which resembled a modern letter A that had fallen on its side) before the Greeks got hold of that and turned it into their initial letter, alpha. And it’s from there, via Latin, that A ended up in English.

Today, A is usually said to be the third-most frequently used letter in the English alphabet (behind E and either T or S, depending on which sample you use). You can expect it to account for roughly eight percent of all the language on a typical page of English text, as well as almost the same amount of words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 amazing A words amassed here.

1. ABARCY

Derived from a Greek word meaning “bread,” abarcy is insatiableness. And if you’re abarstic, then you have an insatiable appetite.

2. ABECEDARIAN

Anyone who learns or teaches the alphabet is an abecedarian, a word appropriately derived from the first three letters of the alphabet. In fact, abecedarian was spelled “ABCdarian” in 17th century English. And similarly…

3. ABECEDARY

... an abecedary is a special type of acrostic poem, in which each line begins with a different letter of the alphabet from A through Z.

4. ABEQUITATE

To ride away on a horse is to abequitate, whereas to adequitate is to ride a horse alongside someone else.

5. ABRAHAM

No one is entirely sure why, but the name Abraham came to have all kinds of negative connotations in English slang, beginning during the Tudor period and lasting right through to the Victorian era. So Abraham suit was another word for what we would call false pretenses, an Abraham-man or Abraham-cove was someone who feigned illness or insanity to illicit sympathy—and doing precisely that was to sham Abraham.

6. ABRIDGMENTS

Victorian slang for knee-length trousers.

7. ABRODIETICAL

If you’re abrodietical then you’re extremely dainty, picky, or delicate.

8. ACCISMUS

Refusing (or pretending to refuse) something that you actually really want is called accismus. It derives from a Greek word meaning “coyness” or “feigned indifference.”

9. ACERSECOMIC

An acersecomic person is someone who has never cut their hair.

10. ACKWARDS

An old English dialect word describing a creature that’s lying on its back and can’t get up.

11. ACNESTIS

The acnestis is the part of your back between the shoulder blades, which you can’t quite reach to scratch. It derives from the Ancient Greek word for “spine”—which was also the Greek word for a cheese grater.

12. ADVESPERATE

When the day advesperates, it approaches the evening.

13. AGELAST

An agelast (pronounced “adge-el-ast,” so the first syllable rhymes with badge) is someone who never laughs. And if you’re agelastic, then you’re miserable or morose.

14. AGERASIA

The quality of not appearing to grow old is called agerasia, derived from a Greek word for “eternal youth.”

15. AGGLE

An old northern English dialect word meaning “to cut unevenly.”

16. ALONG-STRAIGHT

If you’re along-straight, then you’re lying at your full length.

17. ALTILOQUIOUS

If you’re altiloquious or altiloquent, then you’re talking loudly or, more figuratively, talking about lofty, important subjects.

18. ALYSM

The boredom and restlessness that comes from being unwell or from being confined to bed through illness or while recovering from an injury is called alysm.

19. AMAXOPHOBIA

Also called ochophobia, if you have amaxophobia then you’re terrified of driving or being driven in motor vehicles. Other little-known A phobias include apiphobia (fear of bees), acrophobia (sharpness or sharp objects), algophobia (pain), acarophobia (mites), astraphobia (lightning) and …

20. ANGINOPHOBIA

… which is a specific form of claustrophobia involving narrow places.

21. ANANYM

Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo corporation, the mho, daraf and yrneh units, and the Canadian town of Adanac are all examples of ananyms—words and names created by reversing the letters of an existing word. The word yob, meaning a hooligan or lout, is also supposed to be an ananym coined in the 19th century when “backslang” (i.e. reversing words to form new ones) was a popular linguistic trend.

22. ANDOO

An old word from the far north of Scotland meaning “to row a boat slowly,” followed by …

23. ANGALUCK

… another old Scots word for an accident for misfortune.

24. ANONYMUNCLE

The Latin diminutive-forming suffix -unculus (as in homunculus) is the root of a number of English words referring to small size or puniness, including carbuncle, which literally means “a little piece of coal,” and portiuncle, an old Tudor period word for a small stretch or portion of land. Likewise an anonymuncle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a petty anonymous writer.”

25. ANTIMETABOLE

When you repeat a clause or phrase but reverse the order of some of its words—like “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”—then that’s antimetabole. As a figure of speech, it’s an example of a specific type of rhetorical device known as a chiasmus, in which certain elements of a sentence are reversed and repeated to given a rhythmically effective criss-crossed pattern; for that reason, chiasmus derives from the X-shaped letter of the Greek alphabet, chi.

26. ANTIPELARGY

Antipelargy is a 17th century word for the reciprocal love felt between children and their parents. It derives from the Greek word for the stork, pelargos, which is traditionally said to be a very affectionate bird.

27. APHERCOTROPISM

When a plant or tree encounters an obstacle as it grows and has to work its way around it, that’s aphercotropism. It’s the same phenomenon that accounts for potato shoots being able to work their way around obstacle courses in search of light, and for tree roots and trunks growing into often quite astounding shapes.

28. APOPLANESIS

A good word for the political season: When a speaker promises to address a point, but then goes off on some long digression and never actually addresses it, that’s called apoplanesis. It literally means “leading astray.”

29. APRICATE

To apricate is to bask in the sun, while apricity is the warmth of the sun, in particular in the otherwise cold winter months.

30. AQUABIB

Someone who likes to drink water rather than alcohol is an aquabib, while …

31. AQUABOB

… is an old English dialect word for an icicle.

32. ARGLEBARGLER

To argle-bargle is to quarrel or dispute—and an arglebargler is someone who does just that.

33. ARMOGAN

An old naval slang word for the perfect weather conditions for beginning a journey.

34. ARSE-COCKLE

A fairly uncomplimentary Scots dialect word for a zit—or a “hot pimple,” as the Scottish National Dictionary puts it.

35. ARSY-VARSY

Another way of saying “head over heels.”

36. ASHCAT

An old English dialect word for a lazy person who does nothing but lounge in front of the fire.

37. ASPECTABUND

If you’re aspectabund then you have an extremely expressive face.

38. ASSYPOD

Literally meaning “little ash-covered person,” an assypod is an untidy woman.

39. AUTOGOLPE

An autogolpe (pronounced “gol-pay”) or autocoup is a coup instigated by an elected leader, to ensure absolute contract of a region or country.

40. AUTOHAGIOGRAPHY

A hagiography is a description or account of the life of a saint, which makes an autohagiography an autobiography that flatters its subject, or makes them out to be a better person than they really are.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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